Lebanon today is the world’s only country that has two armies and two governments in peacetime. Its shadow government wields more power than the official one, while its economy, politics, military, soil, water, and even the air is toxic. Interference from its neighbors has negated any chance of pulling the country back together.
In a nutshell
- Hezbollah’s dominance continues to paralyze the Lebanese state
- Foreign interference has intensified recently from Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia
- The government cannot cope with collapsing services and ecological disaster
Lebanon has come a long way in the past 50 years – and not for the better. The country that UNESCO classified in 1973 as the second-most literate in the world could boast of world-class poets, artists, architects, engineers and doctors, not to mention mechanics who could repair anything on wheels. Today, almost nothing works. The country’s economy, politics, military, healthcare system, food, ecology and even the air it breathes – practically everything is toxic.
It is difficult to say which of these truly grave problems is the most acute. Most of them, however, stem from the same cause.
State within a state
When Hezbollah launched a war with Israel in 2006, it was supported by many Lebanese and virtually all Arab countries. Twelve years later, most Lebanese and almost all Arab countries regard the organization as an Iranian army on Lebanese soil. Hezbollah’s own leaders do not hesitate to proclaim proudly that their money, their arms and their orders come from Iran.
In 2011, this army suddenly deployed to Syria to wage war in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It did so without asking anyone’s permission or even warning the Lebanese government. This behavior reveals how Hezbollah has become a state within a state, often stronger than the Lebanese government itself. Hezbollah has built its own telecommunications networks, controls Beirut’s port and airport, and runs the country’s justice system. Trafficking in both humans and goods (including narcotics) gives the organization substantial financial resources. Finally, in Hezbollah-run schools, a distorted version of Lebanese history is taught, and Lebanon’s Independence Day (November 22) has been shifted to Liberation Day (May 25), the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon.
Dual power is probably the most serious of Lebanon’s problems, and the source of many of its other troubles.
Lebanon is the only country in the world that has two armies and two governments in peacetime, with the shadow government exercising more power than the official one. This situation is probably the most serious of Lebanon’s problems, and the source of many of its other troubles.
Lebanon is subject to frequent interventions from its neighbors (Syria and Israel) and from regional powers (Saudi Arabia and Iran). Over the past decade, the interventions from Iran, in particular, have multiplied. The authorities in Tehran have a project to transform Lebanon into an Islamic Republic. Statements by Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has left no doubt on this subject: “The Islamic Awakening on our resistance front begins in Tehran and extends to Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Palestine, and it will also soon include Yemen. Without the support of Iran, Baghdad and Damascus would have been occupied today by the Islamic State, and Beirut would have been occupied by Israel.”
Another recent example of Iran’s multiple interventions comes from Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who claimed that Hezbollah now has a majority of members in the Lebanese Parliament. The statement was not true, but it was clearly intended to send a message to lawmakers to rally behind Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia has not hesitated to meddle in Lebanon’s internal politics, either. In November 2017, the kingdom actually held hostage Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (who also holds Saudi citizenship) during a visit to Riyadh, pressuring him to resign. In the end, French President Emmanuel Macron had to intercede to get Mr. Hariri back to Beirut.
Tehran and Riyadh actively recruit supporters in Lebanon, dividing the country’s Sunni and Shia communities and fanning enmities that have smoldered since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).
Even the Syrian civil war has not kept Damascus out of Lebanon’s internal affairs.
Even Syria, whose military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 ended 30 years of occupation, continues to claim that “its influence in Lebanon has never been so powerful thanks to the presence of its local allies,” as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem recently boasted. In 2012, Syria successfully recruited a senior Lebanese politician, Michel Samaha, to smuggle explosives into Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks and set off a sectarian war. Due to Mr. Samaha’s close ties to President Assad and Syrian intelligence, it took two trials to convict and jail the former minister of information and tourism. Even Syria’s own civil war has not kept Damascus out of Lebanon’s internal affairs.
Lebanon’s other neighbor, Israel, continues to violate the country’s airspace while bombing Iranian targets in Syria. Over the past two years, more than 150 such Israeli attacks have inflicted significant damage on Iranian forces. Since Israel does not acknowledge these attacks or claim responsibility for them, Iran is not forced to retaliate. Iran stays silent because of Israel’s crushing military superiority and diplomatic backing from the United States, the European Union and Russia.
If the Israel-Iran conflict in Syria were to take a serious turn, causing Hezbollah to respond with missile and rocket attacks against Israeli territory, then this “War in the North” would bring a huge Israeli response that would also be directed against Lebanon’s vital infrastructure. The Israeli Defense Forces’ chief of staff, General Gadi Eizenkot, warned against “a picture of devastation that no one in the region will forget” as even civilian neighborhoods are flattened.
A side effect of foreign meddling in Lebanese politics is the unprecedented level of corruption among the top leadership. According to Transparency International, Lebanon now ranks among the 35 most corrupt countries in the world, compared with an average score (60 out of 143) in 2006.
Perhaps it was under this outside pressure that Lebanese President Michel Aoun signed a secret naturalization decree on May 11, 2018, awarding Lebanese citizenship to almost 400 people – allegedly including Syrian businessmen and officials close to President Assad who may have been implicated in war crimes. The step may help such people evade U.S. financial sanctions for money laundering and financing terrorism.
Syria’s civil war has displaced millions of people, of whom 1.5 million are now in Lebanon. Including nearly half a million Palestinians, the country now hosts a total of 2 million refugees in addition to its 4.5 million citizens. This is the equivalent of France receiving 28 million refugees or the U.S. 140 million. Because of its small size, Lebanon is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Its ratio of 600 inhabitants per square kilometer corresponds with Taiwan’s. Lebanon’s mountainous terrain and limited arable land also provides limited space to accommodate so many refugees.
To help handle this inflow, Lebanon has received about $11 billion in international aid over the past six years. Yet many knowledgeable people question how much of this aid has reached the refugees.
The presence of so many outsiders has split Lebanese society into two camps.
The presence of so many outsiders has split Lebanese society between those who would force the refugees to go back to Syria and those willing to let them stay in Lebanon. Despite their miserable living conditions, the refugees feel that expulsion to Syria would be throwing them to the wolves. Having lost their homes, they have nowhere to go. Even in so-called liberated areas, there is always the threat of being eliminated by a regime swift to punish its perceived enemies.
Among the Syrian refugee community, there is even some talk of an Iranian “colonization” plan involving the forced expulsion of residents from various parts of the country and resettlement of these areas by Shia members of Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias.
Lebanon’s government has promised for more than 10 years to get the power on for 24 hours a day, but that promise was never kept. To cover the country’s electricity needs, construction of three 700-megawatt power plants for about $700 million apiece would suffice. Instead, the government prefers to rent floating power plants from Turkey to provide only a fraction of that amount for the equivalent of $2 billion.
Virtually the country’s entire municipal infrastructure dates from before the civil war. Now approaching 50 years old, the water, sewage, road and fixed-line telephone systems are crumbling and need to be completely replaced. Even more modern systems such as the wireless network are hopelessly inadequate.
One result of this neglect has been an environmental and health crisis. Recent tests have shown that most of Lebanon’s groundwater – perhaps the country’s most important natural resource – is polluted. The Lebanese had always prided themselves on their vast underground aquifers, which provided a seemingly endless supply of pure water. This “blue gold” has now been contaminated and lost.
The poisoning of Lebanon’s water supply is also threatening agriculture. An increasingly worried public does not know what is safe to drink or eat, since most of the diet is composed of locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Despite the national catastrophe, policymakers remain insensitive to the waste crisis.
Waste disposal is the most urgent and visible problem. The country’s garbage crisis – triggered by the failure to establish new landfills – is dragging on for its sixth year. About 6 million tons of refuse are dumped annually into the Mediterranean, which is a closed sea that requires 90 years to renew its water. Swimming has become life-threatening all along the Lebanese coast, since raw sewage is dumped directly into the sea.
Although Lebanon is a signatory of the Barcelona Convention (1995) and the latest annexes to the MARPOL agreement on maritime pollution, it has not respected these international treaties. Last year, Lebanese hospitals listed 600 cases of cancer attributed directly to toxic fumes from waste. Despite this national catastrophe, policymakers remain insensitive to the waste crisis. “It’s like having the garbage inside your living room,” complained a well-known interior designer.
The country’s mountains have been disfigured by illegal gravel quarries, which cause erosion and landslides into the valleys below. Neither highland forests nor lowland farms have been spared. Since many of these illegal operations belong to “influential and protected persons,” they can proceed with impunity. An estimated 15 percent of Lebanon’s mountainous areas have already been devastated, and the authorities are still watching passively as the destruction continues.
With infrastructure in collapse and environmental costs mounting, it is no wonder that the Lebanese economy is in shambles. Public debt has reached $90 billion, or a little over 150 percent of gross domestic product. Economic growth has slowed from close to 9 percent in 2010 to just over 1 percent in 2017 and 2018. While data are scarce on unemployment (the last official figure was 11 percent in 2011), the jobless rate probably reaches 40 percent if refugees are included. About 30 percent of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line.
What holds the country together is the resilience of the Lebanese people, who are adept at coping with bad news without becoming too discouraged. With all of Lebanon’s problems, the morale and optimism of its population are higher than in many other Middle Eastern countries.
Despite large external deficits, the country’s finances are kept afloat by the steady stream of cash deposits coming from expatriates working in the Arabic and Gulf countries, as well as in North America, Europe and Australia.
The commercial banking system has proven surprisingly solid thanks to stabilization measures from the Banque du Liban, the country’s central bank, to shore up their capital ratios.
Finally, there is hope that Lebanon’s vast offshore deposits of natural gas, now stalled by a bitter territorial dispute with Israel, may ultimately start producing the revenue needed to restore the country’s finances and rebuild its infrastructure.